The Presidential Debates

The Republican presidential debates have been fairly entertaining although unenlightening. The debates have been intellectually interesting to watch from an interpersonal communication perspective. In the most recent debate, I was reminded of Robert Fulghum’s book: “All I Really Need to Know I Learned in Kindergarten.” The rules Fulghum said he learned included:

Play fair
Don’t hit people
Put things back where you found them
Say you’re sorry when you hurt somebody
Wash your hands when you eat
When you go out into the world, watch out for traffic, hold hands, stick together

These rules seem pretty simple now, but basic rules for children are the foundation for a complex set of interrelationship we struggle to understand our whole lives. Kindergarten is the first time we encounter a regular authority figure other than our parents. We are introduced to the world of work in kindergarten. We learn how to get along with others in kindergarten. Our personalities and interpersonal skills are shaped when we are young. Maybe we never really grow up; we continually reenact the same strategies we used in kindergarten to deal with others. Today, we embrace or avoid the rules we were taught.

How does Fulghum’s book relate to the presidential debates? Well, the debates remind me of the “fights” that we occasionally had on the playground. The fights in my school rarely got physical. Most of the time, the combatants bragged about themselves, insulted their opponents, blamed problems on people who weren’t there, and did a good deal of posturing. The presidential debates so far have had little to do with finding solutions to our country’s problems. Instead, the debates involved people acting like they were in a school yard fight, posturing to show they were tougher than everyone else. Like kids in a school yard fight, they played to the audience. How they appeared was what mattered. The nonverbal “trumped” the verbal. This suggests that we may need to update the rules for some of the candidates when they debate, since they may not have learned to follow the rules they were taught in kindergarten. Here are some suggestions for debate rules:

Attack positions, not people
Be sure you have the facts on a topic before you speak
Be respectful to everyone, even those who disagree with you
Do not be afraid to praise someone
Do not run for the office of the president just because you want the power
Avoid making scapegoats out of others
Be honest
Care about what power would allow you to do for others, not for yourself.

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